The road to playing college softball is long and never easy, and the road to playing professional softball is even more difficult.
The sport thrives in the United States — with three consecutive Olympic gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004, Team USA is one of the best softball teams in the world. Other organizations, like Athletes Unlimited, are working to make a large-scale professional softball league a reality.
Thriving college and professional softball teams prove that the country doesn’t lack talented softball players, yet like many female-dominated sports, it is still rarely covered at the national level.
Two of the best programs in the country are the University of California at Los Angeles and University of Washington, who were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 respectively, at the end of the 2020 season. The Bruins defeated the Huskies in the 2019 College Women’s World Series semifinals and went on to win the World Series that year. The Huskies played in the World Series final the year before, losing to Florida State. The UNC softball team declined to participate in this story.
Two people who have covered softball extensively are Josh Kirshenbaum, the former sports editor of The Daily, UW's student newspaper, who covered the Huskies 2019 run; and Jon Christon, the assistant sports editor for The Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student newspaper.
Both said players from elite college teams often look to further their careers after college in one way or another. Kirshenbaum estimated that one to three of the Huskie’s softball stars are drafted to play in the National Pro Fastpitch League every year, but Christon said UCLA’s softball players are far more likely to become softball coaches than to go pro.
There are a variety of reasons why so few college players go pro. Many professional teams will avoid drafting athletes that they believe may be picked up by the USA Olympic team, as the seasons take place at the same time. UCLA players Rachel Garcia and Bubba Nickles were picked up by Team USA and were planning on sitting out the 2020 college season to play before the Olympics were postponed.
Money for professional softball players is also scarce. On average, a professional softball player in the National Pro Fastpitch League makes $5,000 to $6,000 a year, while the minimum salary for MLB players is $563,500.
“This is it for a lot of our softball players, which is sad to say," Christon said. "There should be a better professional softball league."
Plans for a larger and more influential professional league are in the works. Athletes Unlimited experimented with the concept of a new professional league this past summer.
Kayla Lombardo, a former Division 1 college softball player at Fordham University and the lead editor of Softball America, praised Athletes Unlimited for its efforts. She said the 23 Athletes Unlimited softball games that were streamed by ESPN received 3.9 million viewers, proving that there is an audience for professional softball. The average salary was $17,000 per athlete for the season, which lasted from Aug. 29 through Sept. 28.
“You can’t live on $17,000, but that’s moving towards the place that we want to be,” Lombardo said. “I wish there was a bigger professional softball league. I wish that for all women’s sports. I wish they were seen as equal to men’s sports where they can make a viable living playing the sport they’ve worked their whole life for.”
Cheri Kempf is the senior director for Athletes Unlimited and commissioner for the National Pro Fastpitch League. She laid out the unique model for the organization, in which players had a large role in the administration process. The Player Executive Committee determined which players were invited to play in the league. A leaderboard ranked players, and the top four players each week served as captains, drafting the athletes they wanted on their team for the following week.
“The goal is to put the control and the say-so and the sort of direction and motivation of the league in the hands of the players and let them have a heavy influence on the operations,” Kempf said.
Regardless of the existence and popularity of professional softball, college softball often lacks major national coverage. Kirshenbaum said he was often the only news source at Washington’s softball games until the playoffs started. At UCLA, there's an established fanbase for the team, but the paper is still trying to expand its coverage.
"We do a pretty good job at covering softball. We give it priority over a lot of other sports," Christon said. "They're probably the most talented team here. But we still have work to do to cover it justly."
Lombardo said Softball America works to fairly cover the sport, having past players and experienced journalists work together to cover softball at every level from youth to the professional leagues.
“The promotion of girls and women is at the forefront of what Softball America stands for,” Lombardo said.
In relation to how other schools can work to better represent softball, Kirshenbaum said that as college softball teams get better, the articles about the team get more engagement.
“You have to treat it as good of a team as it is and as good of a beat as it can be," Kirshenbaum said. "If you treat the beat as being good, people will want to read it."
Christon gave similar advice, adding that with the right resources and coverage, softball programs can become better and gain more notoriety.
“Show the softball players the same respect you show other sports," Christon said. "Treat it like a premiere program."
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